How We Elected Jailers with No Jails
Operating a jail has long been a financial nightmare for many Kentucky counties, especially those with relatively few residents and a small tax base to cover the costs of incarceration in general and inmates’ medical expenses in particular.
Since the late 1970s, 41 counties either have chosen to close their jails because of rising costs, or else have been forced to shut them down because they failed to meet minimum state jail standards.
Counties without a local jail either put arrestees in a regional jail or else transport them to a neighboring county jail that has agreed to house them. All 41 no-jail counties still have an elected jailer, which in Kentucky alone is a constitutional office.
Those counties are scattered around the state but generally are rural and among the least populous. More than a third are in eastern Kentucky, and many of those are financially strapped, periodically grappling with the possibility of cutbacks in basic services while paying thousands of dollars to jailers who, in the eyes of many, don’t earn their keep (They Collect Full Salaries, but These Kentucky Officials Have Little to Do, January 2015).
All told, the state’s 41 no-jail jailers are paid nearly $1.4 million annually for their county positions. And that figure doesn't include salaries of the nearly 100 full- and part-time deputies they employ. Some of these deputies are wives, sons or daughters of the jailers.
The deputies’ pay pushes the total yearly outlay for jail staff close to $2 million.
Several of the no-jail jailers also work other jobs, at least a few of which are full time. That substantially increases their income but also raises more questions about whether the voters who elected them are getting their money’s worth (They Collect Full Salaries, but These Kentucky Officials Have Little to Do, January 2015).
Job Description of a Jailer
The only qualifications for being a Kentucky jailer are that candidates must be at least 24 years old, a resident of the state for at least two years and have lived in the county for at least 12 months. No experience, education or training are required to seek the office.
Jailers have arrest powers and can carry firearms if they have had the proper instruction. New jailers must undergo 40 hours of training before taking office. Once in office, they are required to have 40 hours of annual retraining (They Collect Full Salaries, but These Kentucky Officials Have Little to Do, January 2015).
Jailers who don’t have a jail to operate are paid salaries set by their fiscal courts within a state-approved range, between $20,000 and $70,398. And their responsibilities are just as disparate, varying from allegedly substantial to virtually nonexistent.
By law, jailers who do not have a jail to run or prisoners to transport are supposed to serve as court bailiffs, but that does not always happen.
In fact, it’s unclear what many of the no-jail jailers really do to justify their pay. Nor does there appear to be any ongoing oversight of their activities beyond that which the local fiscal court may, or may not, provide. Fiscal court oversight of at least some of the 41 no-jail jailers appears to have been spotty at best. And in some instances there sometimes appears to be little or no correlation between no-jail jailers’ salaries and the time they devote to the job.
A review by KyCIR found that about a third of the 41 no-jail jailers are paid $40,000 or more per year, even though many -- by their own admission -- have little to do on a daily basis (They Collect Full Salaries, but These Kentucky Officials Have Little to Do, January 2015).
Merge Jailer’s Office with the Sheriff’s?
This uneven system of no-jail jailers’ responsibilities and incomes has led some officials to suggest merging the jailer’s office with that of the sheriff in at least some of the 41 counties, which the state constitution allows.
“More than 80 percent of the nation’s jails are run by sheriffs,” said Michael Jackson, a program specialist with the National Institute of Corrections in Washington, D.C. “Kentucky’s the only state that has elected jailers.”
That idea has generated little interest and even less traction in the legislature, which would have to approve any merger. Local political opposition and a lack of public awareness and concern appear to be the main impediments.
Interviews with officials of state associations for sheriffs, jailers and others disclosed absolutely no enthusiasm for doing away with any jailer’s job.
If a jailer doesn’t have enough to do, the county’s fiscal court can assign other duties, said Mike Simpson, the Oldham County jailer and president of the Kentucky Jailers Association. Simpson said the statewide group is reluctant to support eliminating the constitutional office. Plus, sheriffs don’t seem interested in taking on the jailers’ duties, Simpson added (They Collect Full Salaries, but These Kentucky Officials Have Little to Do, January 2015).
“I don’t see how you can justify keeping the jailer if you don’t have a jail,” said Robert Lawson, a law professor at the University of Kentucky and one of the state’s leading authorities on corrections policy. “I’d have to say that makes no common sense. (They Collect Full Salaries, but These Kentucky Officials Have Little to Do, January 2015)
Nepotism in the Jailer’s Office
Family ties also figure prominently in some no-jail jailers’ operations -- and budgets.
Harrison County Jailer Larry Turner’s 11 part-time deputies include his wife and daughter. In addition to Turner’s $54,483 annual salary, those 11 deputies are paid approximately $85,800 per year. That includes $3,663 earned last year by his wife, and $12,095 paid to his daughter (They Collect Full Salaries, but These Kentucky Officials Have Little to Do, January 2015).
Ethics ordinances governing six counties investigated do not bar elected officials from hiring relatives. Some other cities and counties prohibit nepotism (They Collect Full Salaries, but These Kentucky Officials Have Little to Do, January 2015).
Senate Bill 184 (SB184)
The Kentucky Senate passed legislation addressing Kentucky’s practice of electing and paying for jailers in counties with no jails.
Senate Bill 184 would maintain the minimum salary of $20,000 per year for jailers but provide additional oversight and accountability for the state’s 41 jailers who don’t have jails to run, said Sen. Danny Carroll, R-Paducah, who sponsored the bill ("No Jail Jailers" Addressed in Bill Passed by Kentucky Senate, March 2015).
“The bill brings accountability and transparency while leaving decisions at a local level,” he said. Northern Kentucky Senators Chris McDaniel (R-Taylor Mill), Wil Schroder (R-Wilder), and John Schickel (R-Union) voted in favor of the bill which would require fiscal courts to pass an ordinance by May 1 of each year establishing the jailer’s responsibilities ("No Jail Jailers" Addressed in Bill Passed by Kentucky Senate, March 2015).
In election years, fiscal courts could set the jailer salary that would take effect upon the start of a new jailer term. The salary would be based on longevity, job performance and consumer price index. In all other years the jailer’s could only receive a cost-of-living raise.
The bill also would also require jailers to submit a report detailing the duties of the jailer and any deputy jailers. Carroll said this report must have exhaustive information related to all prisoner transports. Many jailers in counties with no jails are responsible for transporting county prisoners to regional detention center ("No Jail Jailers" Addressed in Bill Passed by Kentucky Senate, March 2015).
SB 184 was forwarded to the House of Representatives for consideration. A House committee took up the issue late in the session, but the committee didn’t have enough votes to pass the bill to the full House (The Bills That Failed to Pass in the Kentucky General Assembly 2015 Session, March 2015).
Government Obsolescence and Waste Continue
Since SB 184 died in committee the tax payers of Kentucky can now toss and turn in their beds at night knowing that $2 million is being shelled out to our jailers in 41 counties that do virtually nothing. Counties that no longer hold a jail should have their jailers positions either eliminated or merged with the sheriff’s department.
This isn’t the first case of government going beyond its obsolescence. Kentucky State Auditor Adam Edelen concluded in his report Ghost Government; A Report on Special Districts in Kentucky, under finding 7 on page 20, that statutes are inconsistent or silent regarding the process to dissolve special districts. According to the report, “Though a need may exist for a district to be formed for a period of time, public needs and situations may change over time, resulting in the service provided by a specific district to no longer be necessary…Currently, many types of districts may continue to exist because there is not a process for them to be dissolved.”
The moral to the story is that government can take on a life of its own if tax payers aren’t paying attention. The person holding the position, agency, or special district has every incentive to survive because of tax payer patronage, and therefore resists any attempts at dissolving their sinecures. It’s important to understand that public needs may change over time and we therefore have to dissolve such government apparatuses. Otherwise, much like a parasitical organism, they become a vacuum for tax payer dollars with no real benefit for the community.